What you see: A first edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses from the 1/100 series of the run of 1,000, which is signed by the author. Sotheby’s estimates it at $150,000 to $250,000.
Who was James Joyce? He was an Irish author and poet who ranks as one of the most important and influential authors of the 20th century. Ulysses, published in 1922, catapulted him to literary stardom, even as it was challenged by censors who deemed parts of it obscene. Bloomsday, a June 16 holiday that celebrates Ulysses by visiting places in Dublin, Ireland where Joyce set the story, has taken place since 1954. He died in 1941 at the age of 58.
How was the first edition of Ulysses produced? The Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, run by American Sylvia Beach, printed Ulysses in three issues of 750, 150, and 100, which added up to 1,000 copies. All three were numbered, but only the 1/100 issue was signed by Joyce. All copies were issued in blue paper wrappers, a color meant to call to mind the blue of the Greek flag and link Joyce’s work to the ancient tale of the Odyssey.
What makes this particular first edition Ulysses stand out? “It’s a really, really fine copy of what many critics say might be the most important modernist novel,” says Peter Selley, specialist in books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, explaining that the blue paper wrappers “are quite fragile, and the majority of copies that survive have had to be cloth bound. With this copy, the special wrappers are preserved.” He adds that the copy includes the original prospectus, “which can be collectible in its own right.” It’s a single sheet of paper that announces the forthcoming publication of the book.
When Sylvia Beach published the book in 1922, did she and Joyce know what they had? “There was a lot of excitement before it was printed,” he says. “Sylvia championed it, and it was awaited in critical and collecting circles. There was a lot of excitement before it came out. Joyce was famous by then. They knew something special was happening,” he says, adding, “Sylvia Beach would probably not be surprised if the first edition of this book, 100 years later, was selling for $200,000 to $250,000. She really believed in it.”
When did Ulysses truly take off as a collectible book? “In the early to mid-1980s, there was a big uplift in prices,” he says. “It appealed to collectors who want the high spots. People want the key works in the best condition.”
Is the 1/100 version of the Ulysses first edition considered superior to the other two versions? “It depends on what you mean by superior,” he says. “It’s the most limited issue, and collectors gravitate to the most limited issue. The 1/100 is always going to be the most desirable, and most deluxe, in collectible terms.”
How often does a 1/100 copy of Ulysses come to auction? “About one or two every year,” he says. “Normally they fetch very high prices. It can fetch up to $300,000 to $400,000 for inscribed copies.”
Where did James Joyce sign this first edition Ulysses? On the colophon page, a page at the front of the book that describes the details of each edition and gives the number of the copy: 82. “Look at the signature. He always signs at that angle,” he says, referring to the southwest-northeast rise of Joyce’s script. “Even in his manuscripts, he always writes at that angle. It’s very distinctive.” (To see Joyce’s signature, click on the second thumbnail you see below the main image on the lot page.)
Why will this first edition Ulysses stick in your memory? “I’ve been in the business since the mid-1980s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a first edition copy of Ulysses that’s as nice as this,” he says. “I’ve never seen as completely mint copy of a 1/100. It’s probably close to as-issued as any I’ve seen.”
How to bid: The first edition 1/100 copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses is lot 188 in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations auction at Sotheby’s London on December 11.
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Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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